I used to often wonder at the order of the highest values that Ayn Rand sets out in Objectivism: Reason, then Purpose and then followed by Self Esteem. The order in which they are given at that time seemed to imply that Reason ought to be our most fundamental value, followed by Purpose and Self Esteem.
Now, I see differently and still understand why that order is necessary, and what AR really meant. Out of the three, it is Purpose which ought to be our central value, the driving force of our lives. “A man without a purpose,” said Francisco D’Anconia in AS, “is the most immoral of men,” not without good reason.
Life is essentially goal-directed action, and so is the value of Purpose. AR defines life as ‘a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.’ Notice the prime emphasis here is on action directed to a single goal — self-sustenance.
However, the context of purpose differs between plants and animals and us human beings. If we were to ask of a plant or animal, what is the purpose of its life, then we would get the cyclical answer, ‘life itself’ or its own survival. In other words, ‘they live in order to live,’ or that for them, life is an end in itself.
For human beings, the same can be said for the automatic functions of our body parts and organs, and reflex actions. Their purpose is again ‘self-sustenance.’
However, with regards to the volitional actions of our mind and consequently our body, we have a choice to either attempt to live by the method of animals, seeking physical survival by any means and cost, or strive to achieve happiness, which according to Ayn Rand, ought to be the highest moral purpose of every human being.
Existentially, life is an end in itself, but psychologically, for rational human beings, happiness ought to be the end we should strive for. Those who do place their happiness above mere sustenance, often prefer to face physical hardships, even torture and death rather than give up their chance of living happily, as a human being ought to. This is in contrast to animals, who face no such issues and choices; for them, survival at any cost is their ultimate end.
Then again, for humans, there are those who prefer to live on the level of animals as parasites, and are ready to survive at any cost, while abandoning their happiness.
It is precisely to achieve a life befitting a human being, to pursue happiness as our highest moral end, that we need to hold on to the long-range value of purpose. This need is dictated by our nature as human beings, as AR has so convincingly proved in the Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas Shrugged.
A man can never live happily and successfully as a mental parasite, who depends on others to discover the knowledge needed for his survival or as a material parasite, who lives off the efforts of others. Alone in the jungle, such a man would not survive even for a day, and hence, such behaviour is suicidal, inimical to our nature and works against our life and happiness.
If we do value our lives and happiness, then we have no choice but strive to be creators and/or producers in any long-term rational endeavour which helps us in either dealing with reality effectively (the natural sciences) or in dealing with other men in a society justly and appropriately (the social sciences).
In the primitive stages of society, with no division of labour and specialization, and knowledge levels at bare minimum, it would have been possible (or rather necessitated by the circumstances) for a man to be a carpenter, hunter, cook, house builder all rolled in one. But as societies mature, with division of labour and specialization, one can meaningfully pursue only one or two or three long-term careers and hope to achieve something new and path-breaking. This is the concept and the need for holding the value of purpose as central to our lives, to create something new or expand production of some existing things, as one’s mark and contribution as a moral human being.
It is this pursuit of long-term productive goal(s) which is signified by the value of Purpose, without which a human-like existence would not be possible, nor happiness.
And it is this quality, which is the essential differentiator between the producer and parasite, between the good person and bad. I have read Leonard Peikoff say somewhere that the good person, according to AR, would essentially be a ‘valuer,’ he is the one who first and foremost values this life and happiness (by choice), and because he values his life, he exerts the efforts to find out what’s true and good for him (the virtue of rationality), as he knows that he cannot cheat reality ( the virtue of honesty) and only the right will make him happy, and then strives to achieve the good. In the process, he develops the character required for him to achieve his values, ie self-esteem, sincerity, honesty, confidence, courage, justness, civility etc. A valuer is one who essentially pursues long-range goals and holds on to a purpose.
On the other hand, eking out a survival on any terms and living on the mental and physical efforts of others doesn’t require the holding of any long-range productive purpose. It is, as said before, on a similar footing to the primary concern of plants and animals to sustain their lives — of course, plants/animals are genuinely incapable of taking the parameters of their lives beyond the level set by their nature.
The particular purpose a man may hold on to would differ from individual to individual, as long as the purpose is rational and furthers human life. The particular choice may depend on many factors, from chance association to the habits and preferences one has automatised in his childhood, to one’s level of awareness and the influences of one’s surroundings—for example, someone may learn to play a game with ease in childhood, another may play a music instrument, and yet another may write with ease and based on these, the respective individuals may pursue different long-term goals.
Now, the question that arises is that if Purpose is the central value of our lives, then why does Reason takes precedence over it and why does Self-Esteem follow it. And why not some other value?
Animals and plants automatically know what course of action to follow to uphold their lives, it’s ingrained in them. For us, before we can hold on to any value or a long-term purpose, we have to first discover what is good for us and what is bad for us. This is where our faculty of reason comes in — in order to hold on to any purpose, we first need to discover and define it appropriately using our faculty of reason. Hence, valuing reason and knowledge is a precondition, without which no one could hold to a rational purpose.
It is true that the very act of pursuing a goal requires the constant integration of knowledge, and the two values are at times so intricately intertwined, that they at times are indistinguishable. In popular parlance, the combined application of reason and purpose, is often termed as ‘work.’
However, an important point can be made from the above. Reason and knowledge are only tools, and their pursuit can never be ends in themselves. Ideas divorced from action, as AR has said, is hypocrisy.
Only life existentially and our happiness psychologically are proper ends in themselves. However, many people pursue knowledge as an end in itself, divorced from its application to reality and the implications to their personal lives (the Robert Stadler types and ivory tower scientists and intellectuals).
This is where, a person majoring in Philosophy and Aristotle, once told me, Ayn Rand differs from Aristotle. I do not personally know what Aristotle said or meant, though I have read in some paper on the net as well, that Aristotle held that Reason ought to be man’s prime value, the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom, apparently for its own sake. AR differed here, pointing out that it is Purpose or in layman’s terms, productive work that ought to be man’s central value, and the exercise of reason and acquisition of knowledge is a means to that end.
Claiming to have knowledge and not acting upon it (to uphold the good and put down the bad) is a sort of hypocrisy, as said earlier.
In real life, one can see many examples of people who mistakenly go after knowledge as an end in itself. One may have met the chap who completes Phd’s in psychology or other social sciences, is very learned but does not know how to deal with his spouse, children, parents or neighbours justly and properly. In fact, his illiterate parents turn out to be more wise in these matters.
Hence, even as reason would be our first value, it cannot by itself ensure the pursuit and achievement of our goals or for that matter, our lives. It is only the application of knowledge in pursuit of our values that can achieve our values and life, though the values of reason and purpose, as said above, are really intricately intertwined together. Reason is a precondition for our holding on to any rational purpose, and hence, in terms of order, precedes purpose.
Now, where does self-esteem come in all this?
Notice that once a rational purpose is defined in its full context through the use of reason and knowledge, the pursuit of any meaningful activity is a long-term process, which at times requires a life-time of dedication. Moreover, in order to be able pursue a long-term value, one has to be convinced that a) One is capable of doing it and b) It is worth the struggle
Firstly, one will only choose to hold that purpose which one thinks, whether rightly or wrongly, that he is capable of doing it. For instance, with good reason, I would not even dream of aiming to climb Mount Everest. I know, with my current physical capabilities, I can never do it. Or, I would not even dream of holding on to a purpose of writing a novel in German (as I have no clue of the language). So, before one attempts to pursue a value, one should be convinced that he can do it. This is where self-esteem comes in.
Self-esteem is not just about self-image, as many psychologists claim. Like any other value, it has to be earned. It is basically how efficacious you really are in dealing with reality, and is a reflection of that. For instance, just by changing my self-image, I wouldn’t be able to climb Mt Everest or write the German book. I would have to change myself in reality, I would have to increase my physical strength and stamina, or I would have to master the German language. Hence, the scope and depth (or degree of difficulty) of the purpose you choose to hold will depend on your efficacy and estimate of yourself, ie your self-esteem. To hold on to even the simplest of purposes, you will need to have some minimal level of self-esteem.
True, at times, there are situations where one is actually capable of undertaking a task, but one erroneously thinks that one cannot do it. This is a genuine problem of self-image, and many of us are affected by this too, one way or another. This problem can be dealt with introspection and thinking, though it does many a times stops us from attempting many things in life.
As an aside, the exhortation to ‘Believe in yourself’ we come across in the conventional media is not unfounded; its truth lies in our need for self-esteem to hold on to our purpose.
The other aspect with regards to self-esteem is that the pursuit of fundamental values takes years and is fraught with difficulties, from the accidents of nature to the irrationality and evil of people around us. Also, success is never guaranteed to us. Hence, the fact that we need to struggle against these odds, we have to be convinced that it is worth it. Art does help us here, offering us the experience of the ecstasy and joy of living in the world which we are fighting for, a taste of how it would feel when our values have been accomplished, to reinforce to us that it is indeed worth the struggle.
However, the other aspect remains “ Am I good or worthy of enjoying it? Or am I despicable hypocrite or coward, who has no right to be happy. Your moral evaluation of yourself, your self worth, is paramount here to whether you will allow yourself to be happy or not. You can never stand seeing people you despise as happy, including your own self.
This is the aspect where the need to earn self-respect comes in. How to properly earn self-respect is a subject in itself. However, the prime principle which AR identifies in this regard is —never live on the unearned, whether materially or spiritually and you will be able to look at yourself squarely in the mirror.
Otherwise, without self-respect, and the chance of being happy, the chances of holding on to a long-range goal get slim.
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